1979—The Year of the Referendum
The Empire Club of Canada Addresses (Toronto, Canada), 7 Dec 1978, p. 116-131
Desbarats, Peter, Speaker
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Mr. Desbarats' comments and thoughts about Canada, and the Quebec referendum. Subjects addressed include: Pessimism about Canada and its causes; a view of our standard of living by the average citizen; uneasiness about our political and economic future may be leading to a new sense of conservatism; this is an extremely critical time in Canada, the climax of several decades of swift change; influences and responses over the last two decades; changes in Quebec over that time period; events in Montreal; a sense of pride for Quebecers; the Economic Summit and the Constitutional Summit; violent upheavals in Quebec and consequences for the rest of the country; a more realistic look at our achievements; transformations in Western Canada; rivalry between French and English; constitutional reform.
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7 Dec 1978
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Full Text
DECEMBER 7, 1978
1979--The Year of the Referendum
CHAIRMAN The President, Reginald W. Lewis


Distinguished guests, members, and friends of The Empire Club of Canada: Peter Desbarats is a frequent visitor to most of our homes. The familiar face and voice on our television screen are guarantees that the events of the day are being reported intuitively and with authority. They are also being reported from a background of hard work and experience; and also with a varied, proven and creative communications artistry in the spoken and written word.

Mr. Desbarats has had a most interesting and colourful career leading up to his present post as Ottawa Bureau Chief for the Global Television Network. He started off his career in journalism with the Canadian Press in Montreal. He worked for the Montreal Gazette, with Reuters News Agency in the United Kingdom, and as a political reporter for the Winnipeg Tribune and the Montreal Star. He joined Global Television from the Toronto Star where he was Ottawa editor and a nationally syndicated columnist.

Mr. Desbarats comes by his journalistic talents naturally. His great grandfather published the Canadian Illustrated News, the first post-Confederation newsmagazine and about which Mr. Desbarats has written a history. Our speaker's articles have appeared in such diversified periodicals as the National Observer, the Times, Reader's Digest, Weekend Magazine, and Maclean's. And at the moment Mr. Desbarats is working on a history of political cartooning in Canada in collaboration with Terry Mosher of the Montreal Gazette.

In his present appointment with Global News, Mr. Desbarats reports on national political developments. He provides a daily political commentary as part of the Global newscast and he hosts a weekly interview program called "In Private Life." This work with Global brought him an ACTRA Award as best newsbroadcaster in 1977.

Mr. Desbarats is Montreal born. Indeed his broadcasting career began with the CBC in that city. While with CBC he did three major hour-long documentaries: "A History of Separatism in Quebec," "A History of the October Crisis," and a study of a separatist community in Montreal's east end. Amongst the books he has authored are the major work The State of Quebec, which was published in 1965, and also the best seller Rene: A Canadian in Search of a Country.

It is fitting that with this background and as the last speaker of our 1978 program before we enter the new year Mr. Desbarats has chosen to speak to us on "1979--The Year of the Referendum." Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to present to you Mr. Peter Desbarats, Ottawa Bureau Chief for Global Television.


Thank you very much, Mr. Chairman. Ladies and gentlemen, I am feeling suddenly very ancient this lunch hour. When I started covering politics, as Mr. Lewis has mentioned, in Winnipeg in the late fifties, the first politician in my experience of my own age was Ed Schreyer. And I now realize that I belong to the generation from which they pick governors general.

I would also like to thank you, Mr. Chairman, for getting the title of the speech accurately. It reminded me of a meeting I had yesterday with Don McSween, the director of the National Arts Centre in Ottawa. He showed me a letter he had received. He has been delivering a number of speeches in western Canada recently, one of them to a luncheon club in Victoria. The title of the speech, which he gave in a number of cities, was "Artists and their Love Affairs." Before he arrived in Victoria he received a letter from one of the executives of the club pointing out the fact that the club had two characteristics--one of them was that they liked speeches to relate to British Columbia somehow. He also said that most of their members were over sixty-five years of age. So he had taken the liberty of changing the title of the speech and it was being publicized as "Artists and their Love Affair with B.C."

I am going to speak on 1979 as the year of the referendum in Quebec and I think that standing on the brink of 1979 is a good platform for me. It's going to be an important year in the political development of Canada, and political events often express deeper changes. Speculating about these changes is my everyday business but for the past few weeks, with this occasion in mind, I have been taking a closer and, I hope, more consistent look at some of my own ideas. That has been useful for me and I can already say quite sincerely that I am grateful

for the invitation to speak today. I hope that you will be able to say as much in a few minutes, and if you can't, I'm not too sure what you can do about it. I'll know that I'm in trouble if I see many of you reaching automatically to change the channel, but for once you can't switch me off. You can't go out to the kitchen for a beer if you get bored and for the next while even the almighty television commercial isn't going to interrupt me. For a television commentator, this is power--to be able to see a captive audience and to be able to talk for more than ninety seconds--so I'll try not to abuse it.

This is going to be quite personal. Unlike many of your speakers, I don't represent a special interest. I certainly don't speak on behalf of Global Television. I don't represent a business or a political organization--it might be easier if I did. Someone else then could have written this for me and all of us now would feel pleasantly cradled in the arms of a familiar ritual. I don't feel at all comfortable at the moment as I prepare to explore a few ideas about Canada that probably will reveal as much about myself and my own attitudes as they reveal about the state of the nation. I think I realize in advance that many of these attitudes will not coincide with yours, and I regard that as probably healthy and useful for both of us.

Pessimism about Canada seems to be in fashion. It may be caused partly by negative reporting by the news media, something that people often complain to me about. But the sense of foreboding runs much deeper than that. Among Canadian best sellers of recent years have been a number of imaginative projections of national disaster based on Quebec separating from the rest of Canada. Among the prophets of doom who have used popular fiction to express their views is one of our most eminent historians, Donald Creighton, whose reading of current trends against his unparalleled knowledge of their historical background has led him into an almost unrelieved despair about our future. Creighton and others who think like him see the development of the new Quebec nationalism and stronger regional identities in Canada as steps toward the disintegration of a strong Canadian nation.

These doubts about our national future assail us at a time when the economic reality of the country is changing. Most of us belong to a generation that has regarded constant improvement in our standard of living as the normal state of affairs. The energy crisis changed that drastically. Even when the prospect of oil and gas shortages receded from the immediate into the distant future, existence remained more expensive and competitive. We have all become aware of it in a variety of ways--the grocery and heating bills, the son or daughter who finds it difficult to find work after leaving school, the civil servants in Ottawa who are discovering that government employment isn't as secure as they had always thought, restrictions in government services while tax bills continue to increase, holidays abroad that we still take almost from force of habit but that now seem to cost appalling amounts of money. No matter how our public officials juggle statistics, they can't disguise the fact that real incomes have declined in Canada in recent years. We now have to work harder if we want merely to maintain the standard of living that we have come to regard as essential.

Uneasiness about our political and our economic future coincides with and perhaps contributes to a growing sense of conservatism. The so-called taxpayers' revolt in the United States is a symptom of this. It is a revolution that looks not to the future but to the past. Its spirit is essentially selfish. While there is a great deal of waste in government, as in any human activity, the big increases in government spending in our generation have been the result of idealistic attempts to create a better and more equitable society. In health schemes, unemployment insurance, larger and more accessible universities, and many other endeavours, we have tried to implement the biblical ideal of being our brother's keeper. At least some of the current campaigns against big government spring from much meaner motives.

We can see the same conservative spirit in many areas of activity, including my own. I was reminded of this the other day as I talked with a frustrated information officer for the federal Advisory Council on the Status of Women. A few years ago women's rights was a fashionable news subject, along with freedom from censorship, changes in laws governing sexual practices, social justice for minority groups, reform of universities, and other objectives of the radical Left. Well, no longer. The Advisory Council on the Status of Women now has an extremely difficult time persuading the media to take an interest in stories that would have had strong appeal only a few years ago. Business interests, on the other hand, suddenly have become respectable in the news room. The executive in the grey flannel suit has replaced the hippie in the guest chair on television interview programs.

This conservatism is a North American fashion but Canadians I think are more comfortable within it than they were in the beads and bangles of the sixties. It has often been said that we are a cautious and reserved people who place greater trust in our leaders and our institutions than Americans do in theirs. If that produces less innovation in politics, and perhaps in scientific and business activities, it gives us the benefits of a remarkably stable society, and Canadians appreciate that. Opinion polls often show that despite our complaining we are well aware of our good fortune and are anxious to preserve it. Like many conservatives, small "c" conservatives, we also have a strong romantic streak within us. We yearn for an ideal country, where all our endless differences are reconciled, and we grow impatient with our inability to achieve it. When this frustration coincides with an uncertain political climate, with a troubled economy, and a spirit of social conservatism, the three characteristics that I have been talking about, there is real danger that the national mood will sour and that the spirit of compromise that has kept us together may weaken. Simple solutions to difficult problems would then seem attractive. The supple national fabric that we have constructed with so much difficulty would start to harden and grow brittle.

I believe that this is an extremely critical time, the climax of several decades of swift change. It's all coming together in the next year or so in a sort of unofficial national referendum that is much more complex than the elaborate opinion poll that Quebec intends to hold. It's coming together at a time when many of us have almost lost patience with the struggles of the past twenty years--struggles that are already becoming irrelevant to some extent to our sons and daughters. When I do submit to pessimism these days it's because I'm afraid that we could give up so easily at this point and waste the efforts of an entire generation, and that's what I am going to elaborate on a little bit.

Our generation is a product of the sixties, to a greater or lesser extent. Looking back, the sixties often seems to have been a self-indulgent time during a period of increasing prosperity. Many of the experts told us that we would continue indefinitely to earn more for working less and that occupying our leisure time would become one of the major concerns of the future. Opting out of the normal routine of work and social obligations seemed to be almost a virtuous response to these new conditions. The state-supported idler became the man of the future. It was an easy age to caricature in this fashion, but there was a deeper side to it. Beneath all the beads there was a genuine sense of optimism in the sixties; there was a new appreciation of some simple truths. Love became an overworked word but at least it was an improvement over the slogans that had marched previous generations into two world wars. Young people refused to accept the questionable conventions of an older generation and did their own thing--to use a phrase that rapidly created its own conformity. Above all there was a belief that life could change for the better.

This spirit took different forms in different countries. In the United States there was self-awareness and a growing sense of determination among various minority groups. Blacks in the U.S. became more aware of their origins and the conditions of their existence, more militant in their demands. The poor asked that their children have at least a chance to escape from the ghettos of most modern cities. Even among the middle and upper classes a surprising number of young people renounced the values of their parents and dedicated themselves, at least for a time, to working for the improvement of others, at home and in other countries. This mood was so strong that governments responded by organizing movements like the Peace Corps in the U.S. Politicians who expressed it and symbolized it became loved and idealized to a greater extent than any peacetime leaders in American history--and of course Kennedy was the main example of that.

Canadians felt the same influences and responded in much the same way. In retrospect, Lester B. Pearson appears to have expressed the spirit of the sixties more effectively than the millionaire who took the country by storm in 1968. Under Pearson, imaginative social schemes--the hospital plan, the Canada Pension Plan--came into existence. There was an abortive attempt to reform federal-provincial relations and a move toward giving more formal recognition to Quebec's special place in Confederation. The Company of Young Canadians was created as a domestic version of the Peace Corps, and other imaginative government programmes were started to encourage local and individual initiative with as little interference as possible from the bureaucrats. When Pearson was succeeded by Trudeau there was no further advance in any of these directions, although the illusion of progress that the Prime Minister generated concealed this from many of us. Many of these activities were reflected in other Western countries.

In Canada, the influence of the sixties manifested itself powerfully and distinctively by a combination of circumstances in the province of Quebec. This was partly accidental. In the first year of the decade, following the death of Maurice Duplessis, there was a change of political leadership, as you all know. New figures, Rene Levesque among them, soon appeared in a provincial cabinet bursting with ideas that seemed revolutionary in the context of the old Duplessis government but that by then had in fact become acceptable to most Quebeckers. The first separatist parties were formed in the sixties to preach the political independence of Quebec, an old and rather quaint idea that gained new force by adapting the national liberation rhetoric of Africa, Asia, and Latin America to Canadian conditions. The movement even had its own small version of the terrorist organizations that had preceded the independence of many former colonies overseas.

Of far more importance was the fact that the whole province of Quebec in the early sixties suddenly went "out of synch," to use a television term, with the rest of the country. It started to develop at a different pace and its essential nature began to change. Nothing else that has happened in this country in our generation equals that development. In terms of impact on our national life, we are still a long way from coming to terms with it but, unfortunately, not a long way from having to deal with it.

For centuries, Quebec had never been a full and willing participant in our national life. The shock of the British victory in 1759 and separation from France was followed by a long period of mutual suspicion between French and English. Confederation, for many French-speaking Canadians, was at best a necessary expedient. There was little sea-to-sea idealism in Quebec about the new nation and even less within a few years of Confederation when English-speaking Canadians made it clear that they intended to stake out exclusive rights in the western provinces. These changes, however, had been absorbed by the first half of this century and the co-existence of English and French, despite tense moments during the world wars, assumed a fairly static form.

Within Quebec there was a long period of relative stability; economic and social conditions between the two main groups in the province didn't change very much for a while. English and French lived in their separate worlds in Quebec. They respected the differences that separated them. They took pride in their own traditions and achievements, they regarded one another in the main without hostility, and even with some affection. No one has yet written a sympathetic history of this period in Quebec or done justice to the energy, creativity and colourful personalities of English-speaking Quebec. As I said to a group in Quebec City last year--when that aspect of Quebec's history can be written accurately but sympathetically by French-speaking Quebeckers it will be conclusive evidence of maturity.

When my parents were growing up in Montreal, most Englishspeaking people there assumed that their comfortable world would last forever. At the same time, without realizing it, they were doing their best to destroy it. The people who paved the way for change in Quebec were not the nationalist priests and professors of the colleges but entrepreneurs like my Scottish grandfather who came to the city with almost nothing, started businesses and factories, and employed French Canadian workers who came into Montreal from rural Quebec.

Gradually, the ethnic balance in Montreal shifted toward the French, as French Canada itself shifted from a rural and conservative society to an urban society with typically North American aspirations. In the sixties French-speaking Quebeckers, or more accurately, French-speaking Montrealers, were no longer content to have their progress dependent on the goodwill of their English-speaking neighbours. They began to force the pace.

At first, optimists on both sides--and I have to include myself among them in the early sixties--felt that mutual development was possible, but that wasn't realistic. Eventually it became clear that gains by the French-speaking group would be made to some extent at the expense of English-speaking Montrealers. And this has happened. If anyone in this country has reason to complain about developments in the past twenty years it is the English-speaking population of Quebec--wherever they happen to be today. Many of them felt that they had to leave Quebec. So many have settled in this city that I was told last year of the existence of a suburban group calling itself the F.L.Q.--Former Loyal Quebeckers--or something like that. Those who stayed saw their business activities curtailed, their community institutions starved for funds, and the value of their homes decline. These have been the real victims of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec.

I don't want to exaggerate the extent of the sacrifices in Westmount but, believe me, they have been real. And as someone raised in that community and aware of its efforts to adapt I have little patience sometimes with my English-speaking compatriots in other cities who complain loudly about the inconvenience and expense of introducing a French-language television station, or providing French-language courts and other services for their own French-speaking communities.

I have always felt that the economic and social struggle between English and French in Montreal was at the heart of the problem that has obsessed us nationally for the past two decades. Montreal had to become essentially a French-speaking city before Quebeckers could discuss realistically the position of Quebec within Confederation. It was all the more difficult because this took place at a time when the economic influence of the city was declining, for reasons that in some cases had nothing to do with politics, reasons that Toronto can now appreciate as it watches the economic centre of Canada continue to move westward and as it competes against the growing economic and financial power of the cities in western Canada.

The economic relationship of English and French in Montreal not only had to change but it had to be seen to be changing. Economists can analyze the financial shifts more accurately than I can, but perceiving the psychology of social behaviour is supposed to be one of my skills. In French-speaking Montreal for the past two decades everything can be understood in relationship to the development of the new sense of pride.

I can remember Rend Levesque telling me years ago about the shock of his first exposure to Montreal as a new arrival from the Gaspd when he discovered that the metropolis of Quebec was at heart an English-speaking city. English was heard everywhere but in the east end. The city even looked English. Eliminating English signs by legislation may seem absurd to the rest of North America but it is a matter of pride in Quebec. And I have always felt, as an English-speaking Montrealer, that we should respect that.

The same sense of pride explained the city's commitment to the Olympic Games and its continued attachment to a mayor who blatantly mishandled the planning and organization of those Games. Jean Drapeau perhaps had a great deal to learn about monumental architecture and construction, but no one could teach him anything about the psychology of Montrealers. The Olympic Games, like Expo '67, gave Montreal a sense of pride and purpose at a time when these attributes were literally invaluable to the city. Even today, when the record of mis-management is clear, it is difficult to say conclusively that the money lavished on the Olympics in Montreal was not well spent, as far as Montreal was concerned.

This sense of pride has much to do with Prime Minister Trudeau's continued popularity in Quebec. If it achieved nothing else the recent Economic Summit in Ottawa demonstrated the political vitality of Quebec in the past two decades. There a French Canadian Prime Minister, flanked by the first French Canadian Finance Minister in our history, backed by a federal civil service that contains a significant number of French Canadian bureaucrats, also for the first time in our history, confronted ten provinces whose main spokesman on many contentious issues was the Premier of Quebec. Over the past two decades French Canadians have had good value from their politicians, both in Ottawa and in Quebec. And if I were a French-speaking Quebec voter in the next few years I would be tempted to ignore conflicting ideologies and to cast a strong nationalist vote in Quebec and a strong federalist vote in federal elections. It may not be logical but it certainly works.

The Economic Summit, and the Constitutional Summit that preceded it, illuminated some of the changes that have occurred in the past two decades. There are some who believe the change has been for the worst, that federal authority has been dangerously weakened and that this reflects a deterioration in our national will. I don't believe it. My own experience in the sixties convinced me that change was inevitable. If political and economic changes had not started to occur then, if the forces of action and reaction had hardened at that time, we might well have continued along the road to violent revolution instead of drawing back almost before we had set foot on it.

In 1970 we had a taste of what violent upheaval in Quebec would mean to the rest of Canada. And those in English Canada who today still preach isolationism from events in Quebec should imagine the effects that a real rupture with Quebec would have on their own society. Far greater than economic losses would be the loss of that spirit of pragmatic tolerance that is one of our more distinctive national traits. Ethnic minorities in English-speaking Canada, often unsympathetic to Quebec's aspirations, also might worry about their own future in the aftermath of an embittered breakdown of Confederation. But instead of following this rigid course we have adapted, somewhat, to new conditions, and it hasn't been easy--we all know that. Some very basic human emotions are involved.

It's significant that our politicians often talk about French-English or Quebec-Canada relations in terms of marriage. It's an emotional as well as a political relationship and it has its emotional ups and downs. Right now I think that many Canadians are feeling discouraged about the union. Most of us aren't thinking about divorce at this point but about something perhaps even worse--an unproductive relationship that continues because neither side has the courage to separate. When we contemplate that a feeling of desperation grips us. Part of the problem is intellectual and emotional exhaustion. We are nearing the end of a political cycle in Quebec, I believe, and the end of this particular cycle of the Quebec problem in Canada. Our patience is also almost at an end. Our national attention span has been stretched beyond the limit. We desperately want something to happen that we can recognize as conclusive after all the agony of the past twenty years. After all, we started out with such high hopes.

I haven't forgotten the early sixties in Quebec when the idea of Quebec independence for many French-speaking Quebeckers was an ideal untarnished by political exposure--a generous and a hopeful ideal that bloomed on the dung heap of traditional Quebec politics. Many younger English-speaking Quebeckers like myself in the sixties envied the freshness and optimism of the first separatists. But when I travelled to other parts of the country, particularly when I covered the hearings of the Royal Commission on Bilingualism and Biculturalism in the sixties, I discovered a corresponding hopefulness in English-speaking Canada. There was a feeling that things could change.

In a book that I wrote in 1965 I said that Quebecois really wanted what all of us desire--a good standard of living and as much control as possible over the political future of their own community. As I promoted that book across the country I felt that English-speaking Canadians everywhere responded positively to that viewpoint. Those were the sixties, as I said before, and we have all become a bit disillusioned since then. That's not news--to paraphrase Peter Trueman--but I wonder if it does reflect reality in this case, particularly in our state of battle fatigue on the Quebec question.

It might be helpful to look more realistically at our achievements. I have already alluded to one--the adaptation that has occurred among English-speaking Montrealers. At the core of that community today is a growing number of fluently bilingual anglos who represent an entirely new element in Quebec and whose existence is a healthy corrective to trends toward unilingualism in the French-speaking population. In my opinion the battle for Montreal is over. No one any longer disputes the supremacy of the French there. The task now is to maintain an economically healthy and culturally diverse French-speaking metropolis.

As for the rest of Canada, while Quebec has changed socially and politically the other provinces have undergone other transformations, as you know, particularly in western Canada. A few months ago I sat in the most beautiful theatre in this country--in Edmonton. A few days ago I was interviewing Celia Franca about the founding of the National Ballet of Canada, and it struck me that I belong to the first generation in English Canada that can speak, without sounding completely ridiculous, of a national culture.

It seems centuries ago that our writers were describing us as an unknown nation, a people of uncertain identity overwhelmed by the vast empty territories to the north of us. I don't know whether we actually felt that way at one time or not but in our own generation the country has become finite. We know that it has limits--geographically, economically and politically. We know that, like every other country, we have to develop our strong points and learn to live with our disabilities. I think that we see ourselves more realistically than ever before. In the long run, though we may be disillusioned at times by our lack of progress, that clearer vision of ourselves will ensure progress. It doesn't come easily--for instance, all the emotional talk at the moment about an anti-Quebec or anti-French backlash in English Canada is the kind of thing that obscures reality. Of course there's rivalry in this country between English and French, bad feeling as well as a long history of co-operation, prejudice as well as toleration. I think that we should stop being apologetic about it, or what is even worse, moralistic. The plain fact at the moment is that a period of intense political activity and pressure from Quebec has now stirred up a corresponding response in English Canada. So much the better, in my opinion.

Rivalry between French and English has done as much for this country as wheat. And I wouldn't want to see all of it ground down, blended, bleached, processed into uniformity, wrapped in plastic, and sold as a substitute for real national development. I would like to see some of this realism reflected in contemporary politics; it could be an antidote to the feeling of political exhaustion that I talked about earlier. It could enable this generation to do more than simply pass on the same old problems to our children. Specifically, I would like to see a referendum in Quebec that really means something. After all the turmoil and struggle of the past twenty years in Quebec I would think that the people of that province have earned an opportunity to choose--to use the title of Premier Levesque's first book about independence--to choose an option for Quebec. Transforming the referendum into a standard political manoeuvre designed to enhance Quebec's bargaining power in Ottawa and to ensure the re-election of the Parti Quebecois is, in my opinion, a betrayal of the hope and optimism that was at the heart of the Quebec independence movement in the sixties. An inconclusive referendum will neither do justice to the separatist ideal nor liberate a new generation of Quebeckers for a more realistic and open-hearted collaboration with the rest of the country.

On the related question of constitutional reform, I think that Prime Minister Trudeau is under the same kind of obligation to ask us a straight question. I know there is a great deal of uneasiness about this across the country, that the Prime Minister himself is now regarded with suspicion and hostility by many Canadians, but I would like to see him act decisively on the Constitution in the final stage of his political career. It would take political courage for him to do this. There will be many legitimate objections to any move to freeze the Constitution in any form. But I for one would follow any prime minister a long way on this road because I feel that this generation, in Quebec and across Canada, has earned the right to make a few important decisions about this country and to leave its mark on our political development. I think we have a chance to do that in the next few years.

The appreciation of the audience was expressed by Mr. Jerry A. Collins, a Director of The Empire Club of Canada.

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1979—The Year of the Referendum

Mr. Desbarats' comments and thoughts about Canada, and the Quebec referendum. Subjects addressed include: Pessimism about Canada and its causes; a view of our standard of living by the average citizen; uneasiness about our political and economic future may be leading to a new sense of conservatism; this is an extremely critical time in Canada, the climax of several decades of swift change; influences and responses over the last two decades; changes in Quebec over that time period; events in Montreal; a sense of pride for Quebecers; the Economic Summit and the Constitutional Summit; violent upheavals in Quebec and consequences for the rest of the country; a more realistic look at our achievements; transformations in Western Canada; rivalry between French and English; constitutional reform.